Branagh the Conquerer
Time (cover story), November
By Richard Corliss
The great doors swing open
to reveal the caped figure of King Henry V, sexily backlighted.
His bishops and courtiers gaze at him like apostles at the unseen
Jesus in some old biblical epic. And finally the monarch of Britain--and
of this robust new movie--shows his face and speaks. It is an
entrance angled to register awe for Kenneth Branagh. But how
much awe can a 28-year-old actor, little known outside Britain
and directing his first film, expect to inspire? Branagh recalls
that when Judi Dench, who plays Mistress Quickly, first saw this
scene, "she laughed in my face and said, 'I've never seen
an entrance like that! Who do you think you are?'" He retorted,
"The film is not called Mistress
Quickly the Fourth." No, but it might be called King
Little boys rock themselves to
sleep with career dreams--with visions of firemen or footballers
dancing in their heads. A different legend has arisen around
Kenneth Branagh. His working-class parents never stepped on a
stage; his future promised little more than a dead end in a drab
job. Yet as a Belfast lad in the late '60's, during the first
roil of the "troubles," young Ken dreamed of all the
kings of Shakespeare, all the great classical roles, wrapped
into a single image. Actor. Director. Impresario. Thrilling theatrical
presence. Ken Branagh would be the next Olivier.
It hardly matters that this story
is mainly a sweet fiction of the British press. Or that our young
actor may simply hope to be the very best Kenneth Branagh. Because
this stocky Irishman, with a face of intelligent ordinariness
and a personality that radiates shopkeeper common sense, has
made the dream come close to truth. He has sculpted himself to
fit the contours of the late Baron of Brighton and worked himself
numb to accomplish in a few years what it took Olivier decades
to achieve; become the prince presumptive of the English stage
and screen. In short, Branagh has conquered Britain.
In seven whirlwind years he has
become the most accomplished, acclaimed and ambitious performer
of his generation. He has dazzled playgoers with a host of Shakespearean
leads: Hamlet, Romeo, Benedick and his first Henry V, which made
a prodigy of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984. He won TV
fame headlining with his wife-to-be, Emma Thompson, in the mini-series
Fortunes of War. With a self-confidence as large as his
gifts, he created the Renaissance Theatre Company and starred
in its first production, Public Enemy, a play about an
Irish showman, written by...Kenneth Branagh! Last year the company's
Shakespeare trio was a sold-out smash in its provincial and London
"Ken is blessed with a talent
for his talent," says Branagh's friend and colleague John
Sessions. "Some people have the talent but not the temperament
to develop it." He might be referring to Branagh's image
as Mr. Do-It-All-Do-It-Myself--an icon of Thatcherite initiative,
raising money through private and corporate channels rather than
lining up for an Arts Council dole. Branagh seems as proud of
his Tory-like entrepreneurial skills as he is of his status as
a working-class actor. Only Andrew Lloyd Webber has more adroitly
parlayed artistry into a thriving industry. Thus Branagh may
be out of place in a national arts scene of radical distemper.
Nowadays British popular art--in
theater, film and television--is largely a political art. Its
creators take their cue from the Thatcher government's slashing
of arts subsidies and its suffocation of the welfare state. Says
screenwriter-director Bruce Robinson (Thumbnail and I):
"I'm angry at the squandering of potential in this introverted,
chilly little nation with its phenomenal talents. If the government
can invest money in the Royal Family so that tourists can peer
like bloody morons through the gates of Buckingham Palace, it
can invest in the arts for the tourists who care about our culture."
British theater embraces two
cultures, old and new. You will find chronicles of earlier royal
families by Branagh's favorite playwright: a week of London theater
may showcase up to a dozen Shakespeare plays. And in modern plays
you will hear British dramatists' eloquent contempt for Thatcherite
greed and jingoism. They look straight into the body politic
and shout "Cancer!" David Hare, Caryl Churchill and
Doug Lucie have caricatured the new breed of right-wing yuppies.
Plays, TV films and even a musical have excoriated the Falklands
The perspective is more skeptical
than socialist. " A lot of our work is reactionary,"
says Hare, 42. "We are defending English values--the national
health, the education system--against people who wish to demolish
them. The Establishment, liberals and socialists have combined
in an anti-Thatcher front. These are not normal bedfellows for
artists. But there is a bitterness in British politics that has
spilled into the arts."
In this light, Kenneth Branagh
looks as anachronistic as a suit of armor in a soup kitchen.
His devotion to a poet of the 16th century can be seen as a retreat
from the 20th. Nor does Branagh scan Shakespeare in search of
modish messages. He would not dress Henry V in guerilla garb
or set Romeo and Juliet in a mixed-race London neighborhood.
Like his patron Prince Charles, who crusades for the stately
tradition of English architecture and against New Brutalist "brick
sheds" and "carbuncles", Branagh is a cultural
conservative, or least conservationist. He prizes restoration
over strident relevance.
What he wants is simple and honorable.
"So many actors talk of taking Shakespeare to the people,"
observes Richard E. Grant (How to Get Ahead in Advertising),
"but Branagh does it. He could have been a stalwart star
of the R.S.C. Instead, he used his own money to set up his company--to
get Shakespeare away from the big companies and into the actors'
power again. If you bring greater excitement, and people, into
the theater, then that's what counts." This is a noble achievement
for an actor, and a cautious goal for an artist in Thatcher's
Branagh's avoidance of political
controversy may have helped make him a celebrity. But fashion
is such a fickle groupie that it was inevitable his celebrity
would make him controversial. The British press, bored with the
Ken worship it invented, has lately gone in for Branagh-bashing.
"By September," noted the Sunday Correspondent,
"Branagh was the 'wally of the month,' his wife was E.T.
They were a pair of 'spoilt brats.' " A snotty column in
the Tatler referred to Branagh as Clever Ken, Confident
Ken, Cocky Ken, Canny Ken, Calculating Ken and Campaigning Ken.
A cartoon in the Independent depicted a teacher pointing
to a blackboard and instructing his class, "OK, repeat after
me...Kenneth Branagh...Kenneth Branagh..."
None of this has slowed the Branagh
barrage through 1989, and nothing he did slowed further comparisons
with Lord Larry. In August he revisited the London stage, playing
Jimmy Porter the bilious rebel of John Osborne's Look Back
in Anger; Olivier, in 1957, had revitalized his career with
Osborne's The Entertainer. The same month Branagh married
Thompson, his frequent co-star; Olivier wed three of his leading
ladies. In September Branagh published his autobiography, Beginning;
Olivier waited until he was 75 before issuing his memoirs. And
last month in London Branagh made his debut as auteur: director,
adapter, star. The movie, which opened to warm reviews and healthy
receipts, is Henry V--Branagh's "re-make" of
the landmark film version that Olivier played and directed 45
years ago. Olivier wanna-be? Olivier gonna-be? The labels are
not fair to either men. At 28, even Olivier was not yet "Olivier."
He had barely hit his stride on the London stage; superlatives
lay a decade ahead. What he did have, in embryo, Branagh may
never possess: the athletic abandon, the flaming sexuality, the
audacity of interpretation that risks derision to achieve greatness.
By contrast, Branagh tends to work with a net, and his net is
the play text, to which he is a faithful husband, not a reckless
lover. He gets admiration rather than awe. Terry Hands, the artistic
director of the RSC, says of Branagh's emulation of Olivier:
"I can't think of a better blueprint. But remember that
Larry was a very risky actor. That's the side of Larry that I
would like to see Ken pursue: the daring."
Daring or hubris, take your pick.
After all , at the time of his Henry V, Olivier was 36
and had already appeared in 20 feature films. Branagh has appeared
in two. After his roles in Rebecca and Wuthering Heights,
Olivier was a worldwide heartthrob. Branagh is hardly known outside
of Britain. Just to make things tougher, Branagh would shoot
the film in seven weeks, less than a third of the time Olivier
took, and on a tight budget of $7.5 million. Could the novice
do it? Well, he's done it: created a Henry for a decade
poised between belligerence and exhaustion. He found a camera
style that illuminates the actors with torch power and Rembrandt
lighting. His elite cast reads like a Burke's Peerage
of British acting: stage eminences Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Derek
Jacobi, Alec McCowen and Robert Stephens; TV comedians Richard
Briers and Robbie Coltrane; Brian Blessed and Christopher Ravenscroft
from Branagh's RSC Henry; most of his own rep company;
and his bright bride Emma. They surround a director who, like
Henry, can orchestrate a magnificent sally, manipulate diverse
talents and bend them to his will. And his will is to create
an anti-Olivier Henry.
Olivier's Henry V might
have been the sequel to Rocky IV. To perk morale, the
British government wanted an inspirational fairy tale of international
combat, and Olivier was glad to oblige with a captivating entertainment
that was part Shakespeare and all movie. Conceived as a performance
of Henry V played in the Globe theater of Shakespeare's
time, the movie argues that all the war's a stage. And on this
stage a tiny band of English heroes, against all odds and without
much sweat, defeats the weak, evil French (read:German) army
at Agincourt. IT's Robin Hood vs. the Nazis. Olivier's pageant
is sunny and sumptuous, and so is his Henry: resourceful in battle,
generous in victory, ever cheery and brimful of confidence. Why,
he might be Kenneth Branagh!
But not Branagh's new Henry.
Now that the actor is the age Henry was at Agincourt, he can
show a headstrong young man evolving into a strong king. "Uniquely
for a young person," Branagh says. "Henry can look
at actions and see their consequences--practical, spiritual and
emotional. That is why those decisions take an enormous toll."
So this Henry can betray as well as be kind. He will renounce
old friends like Bardolph and Falstaff, and see them dead. He
will threaten rape and murder of the innocents, then summon God
to provide divine artillery for his invasion. His Agincourt,
which Olivier staged as a fantasy joust, will be a muddy, clumsy,
brutal fellowship of death. It has the acrid tang of World War
I carnage and yes, even the guilty aftertaste of victory in the
Stephen Evans, the film's executive
producer, recalls Branagh's sales pitch to investors: "He
explained that the film would show war's cruelty and ruthlessness.
After Agincourt, it would depict not just the glory, but Henry
asking, 'What have I done?' " What he as done is win: a
great upset, with all of France as his booty. Yet Branagh has
to show the awful cost. In an elaborate tracking shot that lasts
nearly four minutes, the exhausted king staggers across the battlefield,
the dead weight of Falstaff's boy page across his shoulders,
the casualties of two nations strewn like rubble in his path.
A grieving Frenchwoman flares her hatred toward him and is dragged
away. Finally Henry places the dead boy in a cart and kisses
him. Instead of a triumph, then, a requiem--for youthful ideals
tested in war, and found lacking.
Branagh knows that Henry V
is a kind of trilogy: first, a political drama, then a war movie,
finally a love story. His star presence, heroic but human size,
mutates to fit all three. As master politician, Branagh is in
subdued control. As field general, he wrestles with a conscience
almost as strong as his will to conquer. Only at the end, when
Henry plays the soldier unsuited to seduction, does the sly dazzle
of Branagh's charm break through the heavy clouds of Henry's
majesty. He is an earthbound Olivier and his worthy avatar.
Until he was ten, Kenneth Charles
Branagh did not perform on stage. He wrote no plays or autobiographies;
he directed not a single movie. These were not options or even
dreams for a Protestant carpenter's son in Belfast. In 1967 Ken's
father Bill took a better paying job in England and commuted
to Ulster every third Friday to spend the weekend with his wife
and two sons. Ken was nine when a Protestant gang rioted outside
his house and the family promptly immigrated to England.
"After a year or so"
in the London suburb of Reading, Ken recalls in Beginning,
"I'd manage to become English at school and remain Irish
at home." It was his first tough role, and it fueled his
resolve to perform. In his first year at the Whiteknights County
primary school--with, as he notes, "a willful precocity
which has been annoying people ever since"--Ken staged his
first play. A few years later, when he announced his plan to
be an actor, Mum and Dad were vexed; they wanted Ken to join
his father fitting dropped ceilings. "My parents were very
worried about me," he told a Liverpool audience recently.
"They thought all actors were unemployed homosexuals."
As a student at the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art, Branagh demonstrated that he had the salesman's
knack of charm and fearlessness--the seductive intelligence,
so crucial to performing, managing and directing. He wrote to
Lord Oliver for advice on playing Chebutykin in Three Sisters.
He took notes on the role of Hamlet--and then praise for his
performance--from John Gielgud. He determined to play the Dane
at a performance attended by the Queen and Prince Phillip. (Later,
preparing for his RSC Henry, he won an audience with Prince Charles
at Buckingham Palace to discuss the isolation felt by a national
leader. Wooed and won by the young actor, Charles would become
patron of Renaissance.) For his RADA Hamlet, Branagh won the
school's top prize.
There was more to the Branagh
steamroller than blond ambition. "He had all the talent
and initiative you can see in full flood now," says Hugh
Crutwell, who was then RADA's principal and has since tutored
Branagh on many projects. Even before the star student's graduation,
RSC scouts begged him to join. Branagh turned them down.
For instead of going into the
world's most revered rep company, he did television and the West
End. He won the title role as a flimsy Belfast lad in a BBC production
of Graham Reid's Too Late to Talk to Billy and, a month
out of RADA, grabbed the plum part of Judd, the cynical Marxist
student in Julian Mitchell's Another Country. Anyone visiting
the Queen's Theatre in the spring of 1982 had to be astonished
by Branagh's unforced maturity and subversive blaze. He won the
SWET award (later the, ahem, Laurence Olivier Award) for Most
Promising Newcomer and, ever restless, left the play at his first
Busy boy. The title role in Mitchell's
next play, about Francis of Assisi; that taught Branagh to recognize
the sinew of sanctity. Another of the (four) Billy plays;
that underlined the value of repertory and continuity. And his
own solo evening, The Madness, a reading of Tennyson's
poem The Maud; that taught him how to hold an audience
rapt in the palm of one strong hand. All three jobs were superb
training for Branagh's first great role, and when the RSC called
again, he was ready to join. On one condition: he must play Henry
Adrian Noble thought so too.
The director found in Branagh, then 23, the stout, keen instrument
he needed for a Henry whose military fervor could evoke both
the glory and tragedy of warmaking. And in Henry, Branagh found
the young role of a lifetime. But the RSC could not hold him.
He was determined to make his own way--especially given the frustration
he and other youthful members of the company felt there. While
his friends fumed and sulked, Branagh fumed and produced a one-act
satire of the RSC, Tell Me Honestly. For Branagh, revenge
is a dish best eaten in public.
His first film assignment, High
Season, was one of those let's-all-go-to-a-beautiful-resort-and-make-a-silly-movie
movies inspired by Beat the Devil. Branagh got to spend
seven weeks in Rhodes and make naked onscreen love to Jacqueline
Bisset on a moonlit Aegean shore. Some actor might have enjoyed
the job, but for our workaholic pup it was vacation at gunpoint:
"The leisure nearly drove me mad." So he pulled out
his copy of Romeo and Juliet, figured out how more than
two dozen roles could be covered by just eleven actors, roughed
out a rehearsal schedule and budget, and set up a production
that he would direct and star in.
Romeo and Juliet was rehearsed and performed in another
breathless seven weeks. Presumably, the leisure nearly drove
him mad, for he spent some of his Romeo days appearing
in a second film--though for Branagh A Month in the Country
lasted only two weeks. As an archaeologist haunted by the demons
of trench warfare, he was all bluff ironic charm painted over
a festering soul, nicely complementing Colin Firth's twitchy
performance. But Branagh wasn't in this movie for the art. He
need to support his troupe. He has often justified stretching
himself thin for his company's sake. In the introduction to Beginning,
he asks, "So why write this? Money."
Fortunes of War brought him both money and stardom.
"Kenneth Branagh is melting hearts all over the place,"
said the national daily Today. He surely thawed Emma Thompson's.
She is the daughter of show people: her father Eric produced
the original version of Ken's first school play; her mother Phyllida
Law did the drawings for Beginning. A graduate of Cambridge,
Emma would for a time eclipse Ken in popularity with her miniseries
Tutti Frutti and her show Thompson, for which she
wrote the scripts.
On stage or screen, the Branagh's
make an expert match. In Look Back in Anger, he prowled
about, spouting Osborne's deliciously mean wit, while she simmered,
pregnant with love-hate. In Henry V, Branagh plies her
in fractured French; Thompson puts up a stouter defense than
the French army. In real life, of course, Thompson is not courtesan
to Lord Ken. She has a solid career to pursue while he keeps
busy as Britain's most successful actor-manager in living memory.
Branagh founded Renaissance in
1987. It was to be an actors' company: players in classical works
directed by famous actors (Dench, Jacobi, McEwan) lured there
by Confident Ken. Voila! After a yearlong provincial tour,
Branagh's company was an artistic and financial phenomenon.
Even Calculating Ken may not
see the potholes in the fast lane. "Quite soon," says
Terry Hands, the RSC's artistic director. "Ken must decide
whether he will be an admin man or a great actor. If a leading
actor is running the whole show, he's worried about the box office,
the creaking floorboard, the divorce of his cast member. All
these can sap that tunnel vision, and the performance can be
The strain showed in his 1988
Renaissance season. Branagh's Benedick, in Much Ado About
Nothing, displayed his quick acerbic grace. But his Hamlet
was too rigorous, careful, with little fire, and in As You
Like It his Touchstone was a broad, but not bold, music-hall
turn based on Olivier's Archie Rice. ("Forgive me, father,"
Branagh says in his book.) His work was suddenly more impressive
for how much he was doing, not how well. Clearly, he was preoccupied
by the giant task ahead: directing his Henry film.
Bravado was called for, and Branagh
had it. He would be daunted neither by the rigors of raising
funds nor by his ignorance of directing. On the set the first
day, he didn't know to shout "action" until someone
poked him in the ribs. He may not have known what to do, but
he knew what he wanted. Says Richard Briers, who plays Bardolph:
"Ken's got the general's gift of being the man you automatically
follow. His instructions are clear, and he's positive he's right."
Branagh was efficient too: he completed the shooting ahead of
schedule and under budget.
In Beginning Branagh writes,
"The final cathartic thrust of finishing the movie has quenched
the roaring ambition of a young man in a hurry." If so,
it has not slowed his pace. In January he will take the Renaissance
to the US; it begins in Los Angeles with King Lear, starring
Briers, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. He hopes to direct
two films in 1991: a modern comedy-drama set in Chicago and a
Shakespeare comedy, perhaps Much Ado.
He will remain true to his Bard.
"I don't want to bring special distinction to Shakespeare,"
he says. "I simply like coming back to good writing that
involves the head and the heart. I like emotional punch, and
Shakespeare is particularly powerful. I feel enriched and enhanced.
Done well, it seems limitless in a way that modern material is
It attracts him more than the
international celebrity that seems likely to embrace him after
Henry V opens in the US and Canada this week: "I'm
not interested in being rich and famous. I'm not interested in
smoking a big cigar and driving a big car. I want to stay human
size, just as I wanted to make Henry V as manlike as possible."
Meanwhile, he may write a novel and a book of Shakespeare tales
for children. But what about Hands' gentle caveat about diluting
his destiny as a great actor? "I'm not sure I love acting
anymore," he admits. "I used to smash myself against
parts. I loved to show off and perform. Being somebody else--it
was as natural to me as eggs are eggs. Now I find it gets harder.
Now I'm sort of wary."
Is wariness the last step before
burnout? Could he go from Cocky Ken to Ken Who? in the wink of
a whim? Will Ken and Emma, who is now shooting a film in France,
ever see each other again, except in the papers? Will he shake
off, or refurbish, the mantle of Olivier?
An American Anglophile is pleased
to hear soap-opera questions posed about an actor whose life
and fine times have been made in the classics. He is also happy
to see that the mature Ken Branagh is rejecting dreams of Hollywood
fame, and instead reading himself to sleep with a good book.
So: What are you reading these days, Ken? "Wuthering
Heights", he replies. Ah, yes. Hollywood made a movie
from the Emily Bronte novel 50 years ago, and made a big star
of the actor who played Heathcliff. Larry something. What ever
happened to him?
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